The character of Falstaff, despite being one of Shakespeare’s most popular, had never really done it for me. I knew his appeal supposedly lay in his ability to live life as it really was, with no chivalric pretensions, but I had always suspected that audiences truly enjoyed him simply because he was funny. I had never grasped the subtleties in the character for myself, and it was therefore a revelation to see at the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon a production that made it so easy to do so.
The one-man show Falstaff, an adaptation of Robert Nye’s novel by John Wood and Roger Forbes, presents Sir John Falstaff in old age. For the entire two hours, we see him in the old Boar’s Head Tavern, where he and Prince Hal (the future Henry V) used to gather, Falstaff having since bought it for sentimental reasons. Waking at the start upon hearing the word ‘death’ chanted by children playing, Falstaff relates the story of his life with a strong sense that the end is not far away.
Throughout the play we hear of many events that occurred in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, but, in spite of this, the Falstaff presented here seems quite a different character. In Henry IV he appears to be a man whose survival rests less on intelligence and more upon his sheer instinct to escape from trouble. In contrast, given the chance to reflect in old age, we learn of the precise calculations that went behind each of Falstaff’s actions, and of his regrets along the way. This Falstaff is also different because Nye based him as much upon the real fifteenth century knight who originally inspired Shakespeare’s character, as on Shakespeare’s own creation.
Of course, much that we do see still sounds familiar. We learn of how Falstaff’s rise to prominence was aided by an incident during a sea battle when, trying to escape death, he accidentally killed the Duke of Aquitaine by falling on him. However, after recalling how he recruited prisoners to fight at the Battle of Shrewsbury, who were all promptly killed, he breaks down. His anger is at the nobility whose notions of chivalry encourage slaughter, and who then justify their actions simply by saying ‘you owe God a death’. Similarly, Falstaff cannot abide it when Prince Hal expels his old friend after being crowned, for he cannot accept the hypocrisy in believing that the act of coronation can suddenly cleanse him of all previous wrong-doings.
In this way, Falstaff describes how the truth is simply what people say it is for long enough. He does so by presenting three versions of what actually happened at the Battle (or more correctly robbery) of Gadshill, an event that we see in Henry IV. He purposely makes no suggestion as to which version is true, for there is no such thing, but the irony is that we suspect he has skewed all three of them to his liking. Falstaff is himself the man citing the event for long enough afterwards to form the ‘truth’.
Roger Forbes was highly engaging as Falstaff, although he took time to warm up, his performance not initially feeling textured enough. When recalling his time on a ship he sat high on a chair placed on a table with a lantern, but his voice did not vary sufficiently really to take us to the sea. By the time of the Battle of Shrewsbury, however, his despair seemed very real, and from then on he was superb, especially when recalling the Battle of Agincourt, which he illustrated with chess pieces on a long rug. Overall, his performance made this production very special, and for vast swathes of the drama it felt like copybook stuff.
This Falstaff should have widespread appeal. Given the number of references to historical events, it may help if you know a little about the Wars of the Roses or Shakespeare’s Henry IV, but the accessibility of Forbes’ performance should make it enjoyable for all. For those, on the other hand, who have recently seen the RSC’s History Cycle, either in Stratford or at London’s Roundhouse, Falstaff is surely so perfect a follow-on as to rank as an ‘absolute must’.